Why it Took Almost 40 years to Quit a Job I Loved

careers_headerI recently changed employers, for the second time in less than a year in fact. Switching employers is a fairly big life change, and anytime I go through a life change I always take some time to reflect on the change and what I’ve learned from it.

My new employer (the names of the employers aren’t really important for the story) is the fourth ‘primary’ employer of my career. As I think back on my four primary employers, and the transitions that went on between each role, I realize I’ve learned a lot about my relationships with my employers, and the responsibility each of us has in driving our own career.

Falling into a Career

I followed the path into a learning and development career that many others have walked before me. I didn’t start as a learning professional; I started as a subject matter expert.

My first real career-oriented job was in banking. I started in the branch system at a management level, and quickly moved up the corporate ladder as people started noticing my work.

I was with that bank for about 13 years. When I reflect on my career strategy while there, I realize that I didn’t actually have one. In truth, leaving the organization never really dawned on me. There was a naïveté in play at that point, built mostly on the apparent direct cause-and-effect relationship between the quality of the work that I did, and the rewards that came from my employer.

While I was a leader that often led projects and teams, I wasn’t leading my own career. In truth, I was blissfully content in this relationship. I was well compensated, and even though I wasn’t as consciously aware of it at the time, my need to constantly feel that I was moving forward in my career was being satisfied. It just wasn’t something I was personally driving.

I was promoted 11 times during my first 10 years with the company. I continued to grow as a learning professional as the bank grew and my role expanded. I was well respected, well paid, and happy with the work I was doing even if the culture was sometimes challenging. In short, life was good.

And then one morning I was called into a meeting, and 10 minutes later, POOF… it was all gone.

My First Career Transition

A 13 year tenure was gone in the blink of an eye, without explanation. Despite stellar performance reviews year after year and countless commendations, it was deemed that I was no longer needed, or as it felt at the time, no longer wanted.

This was challenging for me to deal with, and I’m not even talking about the no-longer-receiving-a-paycheck standpoint. I was a loyal employee that never even explored other options. In my naive mind, that loyalty was reciprocated somehow. Like many others that have lost roles, I struggled to answer the WHY for a long time. It took me a very long time to deal with that and to realize that in life, some questions just go unanswered, and we need to make piece with that.

Another lesson I learned was that the worst time to think about what you want with your career is sometimes when you are looking for work. Sure, in theory it’s a great time to think about what you want to do next, but in reality we all have bills to pay and in my case, a pregnant wife and expiring health insurance.

In truth, my focus wasn’t on finding the next step in my career; it was on finding a job. And that’s just what I found, a job at another bank, in a very similar role.

In many ways, my time with this employer marked both the best and worst parts of my career.

On one side, I was extremely unhappy. This was a toxic work environment. The organization was in survival mode financially, and not surprisingly, completely disorganized. A role that started with complete autonomy shifted to being micro-managed when my supervisor retired and was replaced. I spent much of my time with this employer plotting my exit from this employer.

On the other side, it was a great experience, because it was during this period that I started to take ownership of my career. I was coached both formally and informally by peers and friends during the time there. I started thinking about what it really was I was looking for with a new employer, and started making my short list.

It’s also during this time that I started focusing on actively promoting my personal brand. I’ve always had a good reputation based on the work I did, but have never really intentionally tried to build my brand. I started this blog during that time, built up my social media presence, started speaking more at industry conferences, and basically just ‘put myself out there’. Not only was this helpful for my brand, it also connected me with some of the best friends I have today.

I’m not a believer in fate, but sometimes life events just seem to fit well together, as was the case with my departure from that organization. Right around the time I found a position that matched my short list and decided to make the jump, I learned that my position was being eliminated in yet another cost-shaving layoff.

My Second Career Transition

This new job (with a local non-profit) matched just about every need I had set for myself. Better working environment? Check. Shorter commute? Check. The ability to use my skills towards something more meaningful than simply another company’s bottom line? Check.

This was the first time I really chose a role, and unsurprisingly, it was the best job I have ever had to that point. The culture was strong, I worked with a great team, had an incredibly supportive supervisor, and was able to do work daily that was meaningful and satisfying. After a long period of greatly unsatisfying work, I finally found a place I was comfortable with. Being able to wake up every day looking forward to going to work was wonderful. I honestly loved this job.

And so naturally… I resigned from that role after only 8 months.

My Latest Career Transition

Why would I quit a job I loved? There’s a simple and a complex answer to this. The simple answer, as you might expect, is that a better opportunity came along. However like many things, the answer isn’t quite that simple.

I took the job with the non-profit looking at it as a temporary role; not a transitional role, just not a permanent one. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever look at another job again as ‘permanent’. While I loved the non-profit role, there were a few limitations I was aware of walking into it:
1. I was taking on a role that was at the top of the organizational chart for my role. There was no role I could grow into, and continuous growth is critical for me.
2. As a non-profit, this was never going to be as lucrative a role as a corporate role.
Based on those two limitations, I was fully aware walking into this role that the only way I was going to move forward was to eventually move on. I expected this to be a role that lasted 3-5 years at most before I moved on to another challenge.

A few months ago I was approached about a new opportunity. I wasn’t actively seeking a new role, but I will never turn down a conversation. The opportunity was something I ultimately could not refuse, and as much as it pained me to resign from a position and organization I truly loved, based on the expectations, goals, and control I have over my career, making the move was the only choice.

The Bigger Lessons

There’s a few critical lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Owning My Career

When I was let go by that first bank, I felt incredibly betrayed, and I was in many ways. The worst betrayal was against myself though. Even though my work produced rewards including salary and promotion, I was not driving my career. I had given ultimate control to my employer, and that was a mistake. While I didn’t realize it at the time, there’s a big difference between job-related goals and career goals. It wasn’t until my time with that second bank that I starting thinking differently about my career, what I wanted, and what I needed to do to make it happen.

Creating My Brand

The role I have now, without question, would not have presented itself to me as an opportunity had I not spent the last few years building my brand. I’ve consciously branded myself via this blog, participating in social media communities, speaking at conferences, and many other ways, all with the goal of putting myself out there and connecting with the industry at large. As a result, I’ve had lots of opportunities present themselves to me over the past few years, including some I have been able to create for myself.

Finding, and Doing, Work I am Passionate About

I have been involved in projects that I really, really, did not enjoy. The work was basically meaningless and presented absolutely no challenge. I the absence of work I can be passionate about in my full-time role, I started seeking out work I can be passionate about independently. Life is too short to not put energy into something I’m passionate about.

What’s Next?

A career is a journey, not a destination. I don’t know where I’ll be in 5 years; it could be in my new role – which I love – or it could be somewhere else. What I do know is that I’ll be driving my career, and always building towards the next leg of the journey.